A cross-party group of MPs has warned Boris Johnson’s government about the “shocking conditions” they discovered at holding facilities for asylum seekers in Kent.
Labour MP Yvette Cooper, chair of the Home Affairs Committee, has written to home secretary Priti Patel about the “completely inappropriate” facilities after her committee visited accommodation units in Dover.
Women with babies and children were among 56 migrants packed into a small room covered in mattresses – while one unaccompanied child was found housed in an office space for 10 days, the MPs said.
As well as concerns regarding overcrowding and the length of stays, Ms Cooper said her committee was “very concerned” about the “clear risk” of a Covid outbreak.
In the letter to Ms Patel, Ms Cooper said: “I am writing to raise serious concerns about the shocking conditions the committee observed during its visit to the Kent Intake Unit yesterday.”
The senior Labour MP said the holding room facility – in which detained asylum seekers wait for screening – was “clearly unfit” for the 56 people the committee found there.
“Most people were sitting or lying on a thin mattress and those covered almost the entirety of the floor,” she wrote. “Sharing these cramped conditions were many women with babies and very young children, alongside significant numbers of teenage and young adult men.”
The MPs were told the maximum period of time any individual should be held in this room is 24 hours, but that in recent weeks some people have been kept for periods up to 48 hours.
Ms Cooper said the committee also visited the atrium facility – where people stay when they are no longer in detention and are waiting to be moved to accommodation elsewhere.
Describing the atrium as “essentially an office space” Ms Cooper said the Home Office had confirmed that an unaccompanied child had been held there for over 10 days.
She wrote: “One girl was sleeping on a sofa in an office, as the only available separate sleeping accommodation. For children, this kind of accommodation for days on end is completely inappropriate.”
SNP MP Stuart McDonald – another member of the Home Affairs Committee – said: “It appears the home secretary has learned nothing from the Napier and Penally barracks scandals, and is continuing to treat vulnerable people appallingly, ignore public health advice and put people in danger.”
He added: “It is beyond time for Priti Patel to get a grip when it comes to accommodating vulnerable asylum seekers. We have had scandal after scandal under her watch and it cannot continue.”
On Thursday more than 65 children’s and refugee charities wrote to education secretary Gavin Williamson warning that asylum seeker children were being placed in “inappropriate” holding facilities with limited care from adults.
The charities warned that the government may be in breach of its own legislation, making it unlawful for local authorities to place children in this type of accommodation.
The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) said the government’s Nationality and Borders Bill would mean “abhorrent” conditions becoming the norm for asylum seekers.
Responding to the MPs’ findings, Minnie Rahman, campaigns director at JCWI, said: “It is an absolute disgrace that we are treating vulnerable people in this way on British soil.”
She added: “The government has been warned numerous times that the Nationality and Borders Bill will exacerbate delays for asylum seekers – and lead to more and more abhorrent housing. The bill must be scrapped and the government must treat asylum-seekers like people, and not like a problem to be solved.”
Bella Sankey, director at the Detention Action campaign group, said: “Yvette Cooper’s visit confirms our fears that traumatised children are being unlawfully detained by the home secretary at the UK border.
“Detention Action is bringing a legal challenge to this practice but we’d urge government to act before we drag them to court. Children should not be pawns in a political game and should never have their safety and well-being compromised in this way.”
Ms Cooper told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “This has been raised with the Home Office before. In September of last year, the Chief Inspector of Prisons warned that the Kent Intake Unit conditions were unacceptable, particularly for child welfare.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Unacceptable numbers of people are making life-threatening journeys crossing the Channel at the hands of criminal trafficking gangs.
“We take the welfare of migrants extremely seriously and despite these pressures we have improved our facilities, arranged additional staffing and are working to process people as quickly and safely as possible.”
A government spokesperson said extra “temporary accommodation” was being used to house “asylum seeking children in safe and secure accommodation”.
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